from Reversi

The following is drawn from a manuscript tentatively titled Reversi: a group of letters written to Em Bohlka, who died in the 2016 Ghost Ship fire. Reversi also engages with Othello as a core text, jumping off from that play to explore its difficult history and the questions it raises around race and gender. As I grieve Em, these letters hold space for our conversation.


Dear Em,

Leonard Alfred Schneider, AKA Lenny Bruce, had a famous routine sorting Jewish from Goyish: “Kool-Aid: Goyish. Instant potatoes: scary Goyish. All Drake’s cakes are Goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very Goyish….Macaroons are very Jewish—very Jewish cake.”

So maybe I already wasn’t a woman in the way that Jewish women aren’t, exactly. We’re large, with our big asses and the horns on our heads, caging our tiny men behind the aprons spread across our girthy knees. Lusted after by our Others, spurned by our own, those archetypal shikse-chasing Portnoys and Alvie Singers. 

The off-Broadway play Jewtopia was advertised as “the story of a gentile who wants to meet a Jewish girl so he’ll never have to make another decision.”

When a question was bopping around Facebook, “Which author have you read the most of?”, I totaled my numbers and found: #1, Shakespeare; #2, Octavia E. Butler. I was amused by that but also kept it to myself, embarrassed by Shakespeare #1 and what it said about my attraction to prestige properties.

Em, you wrote me (talking about poetry): “I don’t mean to come across as some overeager young protege.” It made me uncomfortable, that you named the power relation between us. That I had the ability to give you something. That I enjoyed or desired this. 

It also made me feel old, and a bit snippy. You weren’t that young yourself, seven years younger than me, sure, but mostly young in your feelings. In your declension toward the poetry world, you felt belated, as did I. So maybe rather than both old we were both young, or young-old, unsure of how to put on or how to drop our authorities.

It occurs to me that Othello’s drama is set in motion by the general’s choice of protege. Othello picks Michael Cassio as his lieutenant over Iago. Iago is left as the ancient, or ensign, hoisting the flag. Honest, jealous Iago. If you were my protege, you would what, become me? Partake of my authority, stand in for me? Who was the lieutenant and who was the ancient?

I haven’t touched on–though it’s one response to the question someone could easily ask me, “Why write about Othello?”–how the play mingles with my oldest writing friendship. 

I first met R in Iowa City in our so-called office, a room jammed with desks. He was obsessed with Robert Duncan, Ronnie James Dio, Captain Beefheart, Joanne Kyger, and Iago. We met boyishly, geeking out over music, Big Star. R was living on the football side of town with no car, undergrads tailgating on his lawn. Tony and I would scoop him up maternally and take him across the river. 

We took a Shakespeare class together in which we gave bratty nicknames like “Monarchist” and “Evil Duh” to the academic grad students we found condescending or authoritarian. In spring, we met up to thumb through books, then wander around town looking for other little groupsicles to merge with and part from. We found one another in ways that allowed me to combine three of my favorite gender roles: enthusiast, doting parent, and flâneur. 

We bonded during the George W. Bush days, a time among many of American imperial huffiness. I was reading Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems and trying to write like a metaphysical banker. R spent his time at Iowa looking at fields of black-eyed Susans and thinking about evil. One form evil took was Iago. 

Though unquestionably a dick, Iago fessed up to it, to the audience, at least. That interested us in contrast to the disavowal we were used to, the customary fascist, democratic, civics-101 techniques of scapegoating, state speechifying, axis of evil.

R’s poem “What is Outside” was written then. Its first word is Oleander: not having been to the West Coast, I asked what it was. R couldn’t imagine: “It’s the California highway plant!” We learned that our states were uncommon to each other. 

“What is Outside” continues “I had and have no heart/Daws, hungrier than I am/screech for interiority.” Referring to Iago’s speech: “For when my outward action does demonstrate/The native act, and figure of my heart/In complement extern,/’tis not long after/But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.”

One of our MFA teachers responded to R’s poem with, if I remember rightly, a mild dismay: “I could never say I had no heart.” She was a lovely person so I doubt R had the heart to tell her she had no heart. But of course she didn’t, as I had no heart, and R neither. We were artists competing for fellowship money. We lived in the US.

It’s this kind of thing–the articulation of one’s relationship to power–that makes honest Iago, the ultimate liar, ultimately honest. If you really listen to Iago, he has a lot to say about resentful entitlement casting itself in the victim’s role. An only quasi-rogue figure, he’s a skeleton key to evil’s mystique, how it combines the romance of authoritarianism with the romance of wayward, paramilitary boyhood. 

Think about the way the play ends for the Venetian state, thanks to Iago: they’ve been rid of “the Moor”–dangerous outsider–and the disobedient daughter–without any blood on their own hands! Playing out the state’s desire precisely to the degree he disobeys the letter of the law, Iago is special ops; a militia volunteer policing the border; the corporate fixer you can hand the project off to when you don’t want to know too much about how the sausage gets made.

So more than my own insights it was my conversations with R starting 15 years ago that got me thinking about Iago-nature. Superficially, the moment that started me in pursuit of this book (before you died, Em; before I had a form) was while I was driving and listening to NPR some commentator referred, off-hand, to Iago’s evil and its lack of cause: in Coleridge’s formulation, Iago’s “motiveless malignancy.” 

Primed by talks with R, at that moment I thought I don’t understand how “they” (NPR, & as I’ve since learned, the apparatus of Othello criticism) can keep repeating that Iago’s evil comes from nowhere, when he’s the enforcer of patriarchy, of state rule, of race and gender hierarchies and the play comes out and says that, so why should it be that invisible…though I guess I know why, I’ve been writing about why for six years, but to have such a twisted and oblivious read on Iago really undoes the point, I said to myself (in the car, to the radio) of Othello, the point being that it’s one of the few canonical works of art that tells you the same hidden obvious thing that horror movies tell you: that the call is coming FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE. Inside the house, people! 

So, R, I guess I’m the one who’s your eager young (old) protege? Yours, too, Em. I would never have made a shape for this writing had I not needed a secret place to talk to you after you died. And both while you were alive and after, it was in relation to you that I learned to think about being non-binary.

The aspect of myself I shared with you, Em, that was quick-witted, quick-tempered, quicksilver, shifting; conversational and rangy, capable of endless talk, desiring the feeling, in fevered tumble of conversation, of what could be better, how to ascend toward a rhetorical goal, to pirouette around it, bat it back and forth like a feather; of knowing, never enough knowing; of interpersonal deference combined with aggressiveness in debate: I thought of it as my secret masculinity. For you, that thing (mode of our mutual enjoyment) was the femininity you were beginning to unfold.

It’s nice to have someone with whom you can clasp hands and exchange roles, cordially.

My beloved author Eve Sedgwick talks about how there are so many different taxonomies, ways to organize ourselves, we could use other than homo- & hetero- sexual if we so chose. Like the Borges division of animals into those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, suckling pigs, those that have just broken a flower vase, etc.

I think that’s one reason the poets and queers love astrology so much. It’s what Sedgwick calls a “nonce taxonomy,” our mundane, daily inventiveness about how people and roles work. We use it to navigate the social world, and as a way to sort, connect, and distance ourselves that’s not founded on the hierarchies most obviously connected to power.

Emji and I might be opposites (Aries and Pisces) but I connect to their Pisces rising. All my Scorpio friends are private. The group needed one water sign to balance all that fire: first it was Zoe, then it was me.

After you died, Nat and I talked for days, and one of the things we decided was that I was you–Em was Lauren–and Nat was Tony…there were commonalities across the partnerships: one person fiery, emotional, quick, and mercurial, the other cooler, steadier, stronger, more stalwart. Now this is a category that I use to classify people in their partnerships–are you an Em or a Nat, a Lauren or a Tony. 

We are built of characters we’ve met. One way to say that Tony is my life partner is that he is so deeply imbricated into my classification system as to be my opposed category, or perhaps my matched one, even though we aren’t opposites any more than we are the same. 

Iago is one of the characters I’ve met, in different guises. His work is pedagogical. He is going to teach Othello about what a woman is and what it does, saying, of Venetian women, “I know our country dispositions well”– i.e. (since Iago is nothing if not a Borscht Belt comedian)–“I know how our Venetian women dispose of their cunts.” 

In the Lou Sullivan book I worked on, there’s a moment when Lou is trying to get hormones when his transition counselor asks him “How many masculine vs feminine things do you do in a day?” He says something like “So I swore (masculine). And then I got home and cried (feminine).”

Part of the chip I have on my shoulder about Othello comes from Iago whispering to me about my disposition.

There’s also a moment in the Lou Sullivan diaries where Lou, post-transition, looks at the other men around him and longs to be secure as he imagines they are. To be a man continues to recede. In this melancholia, the experience of enjoying gender becomes one of being seen having it, of fending off rivals and threats to one’s perfect embodiment.

When he says I am not what I am, the actor can smile with satisfaction, scorn, or resentment; he can be expressionless, confidential, or secretive; or he can openly mock himself for pretending to give away his secrets.

 Joel came to work with a thin red line down the side of their chin, a shaving mishap. It made them look like a movie villain. Which raised the question of why having a sliced chin makes one look like a dime-store movie villain. 

The Lou Sullivan book taught me that it was in my deep insecurity that I was most masculine. And that strangely what is both most masculine and most feminine is one’s ability to make a surface. That in this work of comparison is where gender holds taut. Between imaginary poles, interlaced ribbons.

In Proust, reading is one of the systems that bind readers in a “secret society.” Marcel’s gentle, well-mannered grandmother and the fierce, hieratic, extremely gay Baron de Charlus seem as distant as characters could be but are drawn together based on their love of the writings of Madame de Sevigne. Their bond isn’t occasioned by being readers in general, literary types; it’s that they met inside the landscape of one particular book. 

Audre Lorde writes about herself and her friends this way, too, as acolytes of the word. Nonce taxonomies don’t erase the others (race, gender, class) but they do, I think, cross-cut them.

Are you a person whose favorite Elizabeth Bishop line is “with grammar that suddenly turns and shines/like flocks of sandpipers flying,” or a person whose favorite Elizabeth Bishop line is “derived from the rocky breasts forever, flowing and drawn, and since/our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.”

Marlon Riggs when making Ethnic Notions said he heard a woman’s voice (his own voice) narrating it to him.

For a woman, to manifest any desire of one’s own was to be immediately a man. But to desire excessively was womanly (due to lack of logic, of the rationality that could hold one’s desire in bounds) and a man who wanted too much was effeminate. So in my wanting to be other than I was, which I thought was called a man, I became a woman again: to turn and turn and then again begin, letting the eternal note of sadness in.

R was my first Bay Area poet and I imagined the Bay in his image: shambolic, warm, secretive, and pastel. You, Em, were, I suppose, the writer in transition, and both of you (what I love in both of you) I tried to become, over time, in my halting way.

Having no heart also means to have no certain kind of inside, which I don’t. I’m not a fixed sign but a mutable sign and I have not the man kind of inside nor the woman’s neither. In lieu I offer but a few scabrous strings of connection to lovingly entwine about your waist. 

In Shakespeare class, R and I would have joked “Life–it is a mingled yarn”…

Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jell-o is Goyish. Lime soda is very Goyish. Underwear is definitely Goyish. Balls are Goyish. Titties are Jewish. Mouths are Jewish.

To write and write and never make a body. 



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Lauren Levin

Lauren Levin is a poet and mixed-genre writer, author of The Braid (Krupskaya, 2016) and Justice Piece // Transmission (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2018). Other work from their manuscript-in-progress "Reversi" appears in A Perfect Vacuum and Amerarcana. With Eric Sneathen, they are editing Camille Roy’s selected prose. Their gender identity is some mix of belated queer, Jewish great-aunt, and aspirational Frank O’Hara. They are still figuring it out. They live in Richmond, CA, are from New Orleans, LA, and are committed to queer art, intersectional feminism, being a parent, and anxiety.